How (and how not) to be angry

How (and how not) to be angry

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

How can we be angry, but not sin?

That’s the goal that Ephesians puts in front of us.  Not to not be angry – but when we get angry, to do it without sinning.

All week long I’ve been trying to figure out just how to do that.  Anger is a powerful but dangerous emotion, one that can easily get away from us.  If we’re not careful…

Anger Hulk 2010

While I’m sure you’ve never grown muscles and turned green in your anger… I bet you’ve had your anger turn you into something you’re not (or don’t want to be).  How can we be angry, without those kinds of things happening?

For starters – I think we want to be angry like God is angry. 

Six times Scripture describes God as “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6, Num 14:18, Neh 9:17, and Pss 86:15, 103:8, 145:8).  The Psalms match this description with “merciful and gracious” in each instance.  I’ll back that up with personal testimony, as this has been my own experience of God:  full of mercy and grace, slow to be angry.

But let’s not confuse that with never getting angry.

If you’ve read the Old Testament, you are well aware of God’s anger.  God gets angry so often we might question the “slowness” of it:  when people do what is evil (Deut 4:25), break his covenant (Josh 23:16), or worship other gods (Deut 6:15, Judg 2:12).  God gets angry when the Israelites touch things they’re not supposed to touch (2 Sam 6:7), make things they’re not supposed to make (1 Kngs 14:9), or go where they’re not supposed to go (Num 22:22).

But as one who has been parented and is currently parenting, I see a purpose in all this anger.  When I was a kid, my parents didn’t get angry often – there was a lot of laughter and peace in our household.  But when we did something that might hurt us or someone else – or when we were stubbornly disrespectful of their authority – Mom and Dad let their anger show.  And it was effective, I might add.

God’s Old Testament anger seems to be in that parental vein.  There are periods of peace, and there’s lots and lots of forgiveness.  But when the people cross a serious line, God lets that anger show.

Our God is “slow to anger.”  Our God gets angry when necessary.  That might be a good example for us to follow as we seek to be angry without sinning.  Proverbs calls for just that, repeatedly praising those who are “slow to anger” (Prov 15:18, 16:32, 19:11).

But God is God.  Can we really expect to be like God?

So let’s take Jesus, for another example.  Jesus – God with us, God come in human form.  A little closer to our human world.  Let’s see how Jesus got angry.

First off, it wasn’t often.  People get angry in the gospels – but mostly it’s the religious leaders or the disciples or a character in one of Jesus’ parables.  Based on that infrequency, we might say, “Like father, (even more so) like son.”  Jesus is super slow to anger.

But Jesus does get angry.  Remember when he flips the temple tables (see Matt 21:12-27, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-22)?  In John’s telling of the story, Jesus even has a whip in hand as he drives the money-changers out.  The gospels don’t label that “anger,” but it sure looks like it to me.

Best I can tell, there’s only one time Jesus is described as being explicitly “angry.”  Mark 3 tells about a sabbath when Jesus was in the synagogue, as was a man with a withered hand.  He asked the religious leaders what’s lawful on God’s day of holy rest:  to do good or do harm, to save life or to kill?

The answer should be obvious… but the religious leaders stand there in cold-hearted silence, tongue-tied by their legalism.  Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart (Mark 3:5, emphasis mine).

So Jesus did get angry – but not very often.  This makes sense, given his very stern warning about anger in the Sermon on the Mount:  “whoever gets angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Matt 5:22).  Anger isn’t always bad, but it’s dangerous.  Anger is an important emotion.  There are some things that should make us mad – like the gross mistreatment of God or people.  But be careful – because anger easily turns to sin.

Which brings us back to Ephesians:

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

How can we be angry, but not sin? 

That was the question that drew me to this passage and pulled me into this sermon in the first place.  I want to know the answer because I, too, have let my anger get the best of me.  I have marched off a wiffle-ball field in a hot flash of anger (more times than I care to admit, sadly).  I’ve let my tone of voice run away from me against the people I love most.  On the other end of the spectrum, there have been times when I’ve been too slow to anger.  I’ve watched injustice taking place and kept my mouth shut for too long.  I’ve been like the religious leaders, standing in cold silence when there was good reason to be angry.

I want to know how to be angry, but not sin.

But I’ve struggled this week to find the answer.  There’s just so much to know:  libraries of books on anger; support groups and classes on anger; there’s a world of information out there.  Not only won’t it fit in one sermon… I’m simply not an expert in all that.  I’m no psychologist or licensed therapist.  My area of expertise is Scripture and theology.

In the end, I’ve decided I’d better stick to what I know.  Here’s what I’ve learned.

Anger doesn’t give us license to sin.  It feels like it – but it doesn’t.  When we’re angry, we’re still accountable to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself.  We can be faithful to those two “Greatest Commandments” and be angry – but they should restrain us.  We can’t love God while using God’s name as a curse word, for example.  We can’t love our neighbor while saying the meanest, most hurtful things we can think of.

If we feel anger turning to that tipping point – where our emotions take precedence over God or others – maybe it’s time for an adult time-out.  Find some space, either literally or just in your mind.  DO NOT make that phone call, DO NOT write that Facebook post, DO NOT start up the argument with your spouse at that moment.  If your anger makes you want to break Jesus’ greatest commandments, don’t act on it.

Anger also should have a time limit.  Ephesians says not to let the sun go down on our anger; I’ve known married couples who took that very seriously, unwilling to go to bed if an argument was unresolved.  Any anger that is marinated too long will turn sour – even “good” anger.  Talk about it, think about it, even act on it… but at a certain point, anger needs to tip toward reconciliation or forgiveness or both.  We aren’t meant to carry that feeling forever.

Anger isn’t bad… but anger gone on too long is bad.

Anger isn’t bad… but anger that gives us license to sin is bad.

Anger isn’t bad… but anger that comes on too fast or too frequently is bad.

Getting angry without sinning is a tall order.  But I think we could easily agree – the world could use a lot more of that.  We may not be able to control how others get angry… but we can control ourselves.

So may it start with us.  My we get angry – but not sin.  And in doing so, work toward peace.

Amen.

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